Olympia Fallout

by Geov Parrish

For the first time in what feels like living memory, the state legislature in Olympia is not going into special session to pass its budget bill this year. That means, under our state constitution’s archaic, 19th Century tradition, that our “part-time” legislators needed to wrap up all of the state’s pressing business in 60 days this year so that they could embark on the arduous journey back home, on trains or their horses and buggies, in time to plant this year’s spring crops. Seriously.

Washington is not alone in this. While we are one of the most populous of the states with a part-time legislature, fully 41 states have them, almost all of them a relic of original state constitutions and unable to keep pace with the demands of federal requirements, a modern economy, or any of a host of societal problems. Each year, our state’s legislators generally are confronted with between two and three thousand bills, with only 60 days to consider them – or 90 days in the years when they must also pass a highly time-consuming biennial budget.

Between a limited legislative calendar and legislators’ own limited time and interests, only a fraction of that firehose of bills passes in any given session – and if it’s not an emergency (or being pushed by a small army of lobbyists, as with anything beneficial to Boeing, Microsoft, or Amazon), it often gets left behind. This year, for example, a badly needed bill to create an ombudsman position for the Department of Corrections passed with broad bipartisan support. This was the tenth consecutive year the bill had been introduced. Olympia is littered with such stories.

Here, then, is a quick look at how some bills of particular interest to Seattlites fared this year – ones that passed, and ones that didn’t make it.

The biggest items were also the most notable examples of what can get done when Republicans aren’t forcing legislative gridlock: the budgets. The legislature passed its supplemental budget on time, as well as a capital budget – something it was unable to do last year. And the supplemental budget came up with the money to finally comply with the education demands of the state supreme court, by moving the teacher pay raise in last year’s compromise education funding deal from Fall 2019 to Fall 2018. For Seattle area teachers whose pay has been eroding for two decades, that’s a big deal.

On the single biggest emergency issue facing the Puget Sound region – affordable housing – Olympia did manage one important reform. It passed a bill, similar to the law Seattle passed last year, that prohibits discrimination by landlords on the basis of income source. For fixed income renters, especially seniors, the disabled, or welfare recipients, who need to compete for limited affordable housing with full-time workers, this can be the difference between living in a modest apartment and living under a bridge. That will make a difference. But once again, more sweeping reforms, like statewide impact fees, investments in public housing, or (gasp) allowing local jurisdictions to impose rent controls, never got serious consideration.

Legislators also managed modest progress on gun reform, by banning bump stocks in the wake of last October’s Las Vegas mass shooting. Reform demands in the wake of the more recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida came too late for introduction of new bills – so even modest changes like raising the minimum age for purchase of automatic, military-grade weapons will have to wait for a special session, or, more likely, next year. Even then, such measures will be a heavy lift; the National Rifle Association spends more money electing sympathetic legislators in Washington than in any other state, and that includes some key Democratic votes. Maybe next year.

Another failure this year, despite full Democratic control of Olympia, was some form of the carbon tax that has been proposed by Gov. Inslee for the last several years. This year, a carbon tax proposal at least got a hearing in both chambers, but again, not all Democratic (and no Republicans) were on board. This may not need to wait for next year, however; as soon as the legislature adjourned last Friday, environmental groups announced that they would try to get a carbon tax initiative on November’s ballot. Their chances of getting the necessary signatures by July are good.

The need to fund public transportation (and move away from fossil fuels) also killed a modest proposed tax break on car tabs, which would save car owners money by using the Kelly Blue Book valuation as the basis for car tab fees. The problem? Democrats couldn’t figure out how to replace the lost revenue that would create for Sound Transit light rail expansion.With the Trump Administration’s proposed infrastructure plan and budget, which would gut federal funding for such projects, the state simply couldn’t afford the tax break without coming up with a replacement revenue source. Maybe next year, unless Tim Eyman isn’t too busy with his legal problems to get such a measure on this year’s ballot.

One more highly publicized measure that failed was abolition of the state’s death penalty. The abolition bill had bipartisan support – at least some Republicans object to the high cost of trying capital cases – but despite coming closer than it has in many years, it fell victim, like so many other bills, to the firehose of legislative business.

One measure that did pass was a compromise bill that finally changes the state’s uniquely impossible standard for prosecuting on-duty law enforcement killings. The previous standard required prosecutors to prove not only that the officer wasn’t acting in “good faith,” but that he or she harbored “personal malice” for the victim. I-940 had already gathered the signatures to put an initiative ending this standard onto this year’s ballot, but its sponsors, other stakeholders, and Democratic lawmakers crafted a replacement bill that ends the personal malice standard and redefines, more broadly than I-940 did, the good faith requirement. But pro-law enforcement Republicans objected to the legislative jujitsu Democrats used to replace the initiative, and are demanding that the new law, I-940, or both still appear on November’s ballot. We’ll see if they take that demand to court, and, if so, whether they prevail.

There was much more – a compromise bill to phase out commercial salmon farming, for example – but urgent major needs, like reforming the state’s antiquated tax structure, are hard to pull off in only two months. Or three. This is a major reason (along with gridlock and lifetime political sinecures) why so many such issues wind up being the targets of initiatives. It’s not the best way to choose among competing priorities – that’s the job of legislators. But it’s the system we have. Next year.


Geov Parrish is a political writer and activist based in Seattle who contributes a regular column to the Emerald. Among other things, he has served as the national political columnist for Working Assets, a contributing editor for In These Times, Alternet.org, and MotherJones.com, and for over a decade was the local political columnist for Seattle Weekly and The Stranger newspapers. He has also had a popular weekly political show on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle since 1996, and was the founder and co-publisher of the community newspaper Eat the State from 1996-2014.

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